“His name is Martin. He’s part of an organisation called White Middle Class Gays for Fine Gael. He comes from quite a corporate context. He firmly believes the marriage equality referendum was the final stepping stone to full participation for LGBT people in Ireland. He really passionately believes that. He doesn’t want to accept that it’s more complicated. He feels a lot of shame in relation to his sexuality. He deeply wants to be a part of middle Ireland, and to be loved by middle Ireland. And every action he takes is about that, about making himself appear as accessible and relatable as possible to middle Ireland. Because he feels that’s the most legitimate way to make change. In his downtime, he goes to PR events. He’s sneakily on Grindr but has a lot of shame around it. He’s always looking for men that look a little bit poorer than him on it. He’s on Facebook having rows”. Martin is a character in writer and spoken word artist Oisin McKenna’s new work Gays Against the Free State!, showing at this year’s Tiger Dublin Fringe.
Gays Against the Free State! is as much about finding hope as it about finding faults, “it is directly critical of the mainstream LGBT movement but in a way that wants to feel constructive and suggest alternatives or wants to push things forward”. Oisin’s experiences of last year’s marriage referendum are foundational to the piece, “there was only one narrative around what happened at the referendum and this kind of wants to complicate that narrative a little bit. What happened last year was amazing, but there was a lot of really problematic things too. And this show wants to allow those two narrative to exist together. Both of those things can be true at once”. We agree about how predominantly white, cis, and middle class the campaign was in essence, and it’s this deficit of diversity of voices within an allegedly all-encompassing movement that Gays Against the Free State! addresses.
So far, so a little bleak, but, ultimately, Gays Against the Free State! wants to give back, offering something valuable for future campaigns to bear in mind in terms of inclusion. It’s a timely endeavour, as fever continues to build around repealing Ireland’s violent and anti-woman abortion legislation. Oisin elaborates, “I wanted to [...] chart a pattern that can be seen across so many movements for social change and so many different kind of activism where it begins as something that’s democratic, and egalitarian. What happens [is that] it begins as something much more radical but it becomes this thing that is co-opted by the centre to champion the rights of the centre, of the people who already had the most power. While the most powerless, who usually contributed to the beginning of that movement, are marginalised”. Oisin draws on republican activism during the 1916 Rising and queer activism from the Stonewall riots to back this claim. By highlighting inequities within activism across movements and history, Gays Against the Free State! hints at a framework for future campaigns to model themselves against; a how-not-to as much as a how-to.
The visuals accompanying Gays Against the Free State!, beside being quite beautiful in their own right, reflect a recurrent aspect of Oisin’s methodology which is to combine conflicting cultural references. “It’s me looking quite queer as this really glam, femme kind of figure with an Irish Republic flag and those are things that evoke really separate or conflicting images. I like the tension of bringing them together in the same image. I was trying to achieve this kind of queer Mother Ireland type thing. We took it at the squat in Grangegorman which is not necessarily obvious in the image but it was a cool place to take it, as a kind of radical, autonomous space in the city. And the show, which wants to ally itself with those kind of spaces, and is advocating for those kind of spaces or the actions they take - it seemed like a good context. The queering continues in-show, “It queers a lot of traditional, conservative Irish cultural reference points” with subversion extending to Reeling in the Years, Prime Time, Miriam O’Callaghan, and Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh, amongst others.
Fringe is an obvious fit for Gays Against the Free State! given the anti-establishment concerns of both, "one of the first things I want to be able to do in everything I write is to talk about ideas that are complex or challenging in a way that’s accessible and emotive, that people who aren’t necessarily from within the arts establishment, that don’t necessarily go to theatre work, can find accessible and relevant to their own experience. And [Fringe] is kind of about directly about being in dialogue with the current social, cultural, and political context, within an Irish setting but also globally, it feels like a good context to do that in".
Is he preaching to the converted at Fringe? "The audiences tend to be more diverse than the year round theatre audiences. Oftentimes when you go to see shows, the majority of people in the audience are people who work in theatre or have some sort of connection to. In Fringe, it’s more diverse and there are people who don’t have the same connection to the arts. I’m not that interested in making work that feels suitable to a theatre context or that is enjoyed by A Theatre Audience. The audience I would like to access are people outside the theatre audience so I don’t mind doing stuff outside an establishment context".
Oisin considers himself a queer artist. On how his queerness interacts with his artistry he says, "queerness as a political and cultural identity is really important to my process. In the past couple of years I have felt more confidence in my queerness and I feel part of a queer community in Dublin now more than ever". This might go some way in explaining why he considers Gays Against the Free State! to be his least apologetic work yet; and one in which he is more explicit and confident instead of burying meaning "in about fifty layers of irony", and to act on instincts to "go bigger" in developing the piece when the urge took him.
Finally, "being queer and feeling part of a queer community determines a lot of the way I live my life. Politically and socially. So much of my life is built around being in queer spaces, and having queer friends and allies and what that means and thinking of ways you can help each other and feeling proud of that. It makes me feel much more confident and assertive in belonging to those spaces and having that sense of belonging. Today, I feel I’m existing much more in queer spaces than in gay spaces, and I feel much more at home there than I have before – definitely".